How An Idaho Artist Uses Fish To Promote Healthy Rivers

Feb 26, 2015

An Idaho artist has immortalized the state’s native fish, in the hopes that his art will encourage people to protect local rivers.

The health of Idaho’s rivers was the catalyst for a new art exhibit of native fish on display at the College of Idaho’s Rosenthal Gallery of Art. Artist Lonnie Hutson lives 25 miles outside of Moscow. When he’s not making art, he’s a river outfitter. He says the two professions are closely linked.

Hutson has worked on Idaho and Alaska rivers. “I just noticed a big difference between Alaska rivers and Idaho rivers. Rivers up there [in Alaska] seem much more healthy and in balance.”

“The big thing I started seeing is that the native fish population up in Alaska is thriving and very healthy,” says Hutson. When he came home and worked on the Salmon River, he saw very few salmon. “There was a big disconnect there. The native fish in Idaho are sort of a barometer on the health of a river.” That’s how he started studying native fish in the Gem State.

He made a few paper casts of fish. Then he decided to tackle casting all 38 of the native fish species in Idaho. But he worried he would probably only be able to find 36 of those fish. One of the fish, a sand roller, hadn’t been seen for 20 years. The other was the endangered sockeye salmon. So he came up with the title “38 Minus” figuring he’d come up short.

This elusive Sockeye Salmon was one fish Hutson wasn't sure he'd be able to find and cast.
Credit Lonnie Hutson

“The funny thing is that about two years ago, they did catch a sand roller in a trap on the Clearwater.” Hutson was able to get a hold of that fish to make a cast. Then a hatchery allowed him to take a cast of a sockeye. “So I ended up getting all 38, even though the title was 38 Minus,” he says.

Coho Salmon are just one of 38 native Idaho fish.
Credit Lonnie Hutson

Some of the fish came from hatcheries, some came from biologists. Some even came from museum specimen bottles. Hutson then made a rubber mold of each fish. From there he pulps paper, mixing it with natural materials found in Idaho. Then he presses that into the mold. When it dries, he has a paper cast of each fish. Some casts are tiny, others, like the sturgeon, are almost eight feet long.

Native fish in Idaho come in all sizes, including this super-sized sturgeon.
Credit Lonnie Hutson

It took more than three years to collect all the fish, working with several different groups. “A lot of them are just very unknown fish, a lot of different sculpins and minnows.” Hutson says a lot of people aren’t familiar with all of Idaho’s native fish.

“Once people become familiar with them, they’ll have a better understanding of what our river systems are like,” says Hutson, “and once someone understands something they have more care and interest in taking care of that.”

“I just really wanted to see our rivers become a little more healthy, and get the knowledge out there of what native fish are all about and how important they are in healthy systems.”

This Sculpin was created using a rubber mold and pulped paper. Eventually a paper cast was made of all 38 of Idaho's native fish.
Credit Lonnie Hutson

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